On The Nature of Brands
(A Proposal)

As the recognition of branding’s role in society grows, now is a good time to revisit what a brand is and how it acts. This may seem pedantic, but since an idea can disseminate around the world at the speed of thought (consider the painful object lesson of January 2017’s #deleteUber crusade) opening up this discussion may assist in maintaining a rational public discourse in irrational times.

If we begin with designer Walter Landor’s dictum that “Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind,” we quickly realize branding has an interpretive aspect. As in semiotics, where a sign needs to be interpreted in order for it to be considered a sign; a brand does not exist until it is identified as such. It needs an audience of minds to create it. Only then, can it gather and move audiences, followers or believers.

Business sees branding as the purview of business. And it’s easy to fall into this mode of thinking. Agencies, marketing departments, public relations and media are all businesses themselves, caught up in a solipsistic ecosystem of brands. Brands promoting other brands, partnering with other brands, buying other brands, appropriating the symbolism of other brands. The snake eating its own tail, to the point whenever I ask colleagues to identify the two most influential brands of the past year, the response is always a variation of usual suspects: Apple, Alphabet, Google, etc. I then offer that ISIS or #blacklivesmatter is more influential because wider swaths of the populace have altered their behavior just because of the idea. These two brands have affected government policy and the public discourse. Just because of the idea. No factory-made products required. All you need is a thought and groups of people will spring into action.

If this is the power which brands yield, then it behooves us to move from aesthetic considerations — i.e. the constant focus on new logos — to the ethical. Current social and media climates are overrepresented by the merchants of fraud and bullshit who prey on the collective id with deleterious results. For example, people are all-too-often led to vote against their own self interests — a phenomena explored in author Thomas Frank’s perfectly titled 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Up until recently, populist bromides and imagery were leveraged by political groups to win elections. And once in office, the tragic cycle repeats itself to the same effects: standards of living are more difficult to reach, the earth’s climate continues to heat up, and the charades of partisanship become more histrionic.

What’s the matter with Kansas? Hell, what’s the matter with branding practitioners? We can no longer relinquish our souls to the illusion of professionalism and restraint. Many of today’s “viral brands” are the bitter results of anger and frustration, and have arisen either because, or in spite, of our expertly-packaged efforts.

Life is change. And things take on strange terrors and magnificence, as they always have. Your breakfast cereal may harken back to a golden past when Mommy sent you off to school after a healthy bowl of sugar frosties, but it also constructs your political self, your sexual self, your emotional self. The metaphor of our identities has shifted from the broadcast antenna to the radar dish. We are the result of that constantly-streamed diet of information and signification. But it’s not just our selves. Brands make and are made by that same media of signification — constantly changing in a Brownian motion of semiotic collisions. Even more so in the current political environment. 

So rather than falling in line with the industry and focusing attention on the aesthetic output of the usual suspects, I propose this consideration of the larger forces at work. Today’s most influential brands tend to expand generally-accepted preconceptions around branding, and a studied examination of their extra-commercial effects and perceptions is well worth our time.